Cheeseburger in Paradise
Kellman, Martin, The Humanist
I was not ready. My Talmud study group was preparing the class for the day, but we got ahead of ourselves; perhaps that was the problem. As we waded through the Aramaic text, we reached a troubling section. Abbaye, a great sage, the ancient volume appeared to say, had chased all the imps and devils out of Jerusalem into the desert. The symbolic import escaped us, so we asked the assistant rabbi, a distinguished scholar, what it could possibly mean.
He seemed surprised, since we were considered advanced students. It meant what it said, he told us. We pursued, but he maintained his stoic expression. "My God," we concluded simultaneously but independently, "he believes it." To this day, I do not know how the others integrated this finding--two became rabbis--but it was my first step into a long apostasy.
Suppose none of it were true. Suppose I really could eat cheeseburgers, play punchball on Saturday, and indulge in other forbidden adolescent pleasures without guilt or punishment.
Something had always troubled me. I grew up in a multicultural apartment house in Brooklyn--ninety-five Jewish families and an Irish superintendent. None of the other Jewish kids spent six days a week in school and the seventh in the synagogue, or had most activities forbidden at home. I was certain my neighbors would not go to hell or be punished on this earth; they did not attend Yeshiva and did not know any better, "Why," I asked God, "did I have to know? Why couldn't I, in my bliss, be playing with them?" Instead, I walked by them, sweating in my wool suit, on the way to services. There they were in T-shirts, eating cheeseburgers at Wetson's.
My jealousy flared most when I stayed home ill from school and watched daytime quiz shows. Out would come blonde midwesterners with names like Jones. Nobody hated them because they were Jewish, laughed at them because they were from Brooklyn, or expected anything of them at all. They could live their lives in peace. If they screwed up, it was not "a disgrace of God"; it was a mistake. I had blundered into Sartre's theory of existence preceding essence.
God and I had a decent relationship. I knew he watched me carefully, and I acted accordingly. It never bothered me that the creator of the galaxies was now reduced to counting my cheeseburgers and bouts of onanism. If that was what he wanted to do, now that the heavy lifting of the creation was over, who was I to question? I promised to give up my filthy habit if he would grant the Brooklyn Dodgers the World Series, and he kept his part of the deal. I reneged. The following year, the New York Yankees won again, and I felt responsible. Perhaps there was a Yankees fan more devout.
The Jews kept the sabbath, we were taught, and the sabbath kept the Jews. My father worked incessantly and, if the sabbath had not obliged him to rest, he would have died very young. I did not feel grateful for the gift of the sabbath. It was the one day we were free from school, and the morning was spent in the synagogue, the rest of the day in dim light. We could read but not write, and we could watch ballgames only if we visited my uncle (I feared for his soul, but the Dodgers were my life). Worse yet, try explaining to a secular Jewish date that you can't pick her up until after sundown--in the summer.
But despite Abbaye and his imps, I did not see any options, and it was certainly easier not to think about it. College, which I entered with awe at age sixteen, was another story. I read eagerly Thomas Aquinas' five proofs for the existence of God. Even though he had the wrong God, Maimonides respected him and I welcomed any proofs. Imagine my disappointment when I found out what they were. From there, I bounced into Greek mythology class, taught by a sweet old lady who believed in the Greek gods and knew many of them personally. …